The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Green shoots before the Green/White Paper

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By Rob Cuthbert

Over the Summer the new(ish) English Minister for HE, Jo Johnson, has been making speeches about his plans for a Teaching Excellence Framework, with hints about what it might contain. But only now, as SRHE News goes to press in mid-October, is a Green, or perhaps White, Paper expected. Clearly these things are easier to talk about in broad terms at election time than to lay out in specific terms six months later.

It was easy to see why the Government want to bring in a Teaching Excellence Framework. We already had a Research Excellence Framework, and outgoing Minister David Willetts was making increasingly apocalyptic statements about teaching quality both before and after he ‘stepped down’ from office. Nobody is against excellent teaching, so a pledge to reward it was an ideal manifesto-filler: it didn’t give any ground on undergraduate student fees, and it might even have placated some students (and their parents) about the value for money of their £9000 a year investment. And of course it might be possible, when we get to the detail, to justify uncapping fees completely for at least some of the Russell Group, and perhaps even to take more money off the rest, as the REF and the RAE have tried so hard to do.

This wasn’t, of course, where we started from. The Browne Review, conceived and executed as a bipartisan election-straddling fudge, said that we should rely on the market to ‘drive up quality’ through informed student choice. Even Browne implicitly admitted the idea was hopeless, saying that teaching quality was too complicated to admit of bureaucratic regulation and it would have to be left to the market to decide. However, when students and institutions responded rationally to the situation the politicians had created, it proved impossible to establish the kind of market which government ideologues had fondly imagined. The rush to encourage ‘alternative providers’ to increase competition also proved embarrassingly unsuccessful. The alternative providers were much more interested in competing for student loan funds than competing with established public institutions, and eventually the government had to call a halt to the headlong expansion of lower-level courses for which employer demand was at best uncertain.

The Coalition government was then in a fix. Raising fees to £9,000 had removed many of the levers of power and influence which had previously been available through the agency of HEFCE. There followed many contortions in trying to reinvent HEFCE as a super-regulator, but a much-trailed White Paper never saw the light of day, defeated ultimately by the impossibility of erecting new structures on a smaller and smaller footprint of government influence. Students proved irritatingly satisfied with their HE experience, as successive NSS exercises showed, although activists variously agitated for better value for money, and all students with loans were deeply unhappy about starting their working life after HE saddled with debts of £20-50,000.

Giving substance to the manifesto commitment to a TEF was therefore far from easy. Jo Johnson’s speeches in recent months have repeated Willetts’ evidence-free assertions about university teaching:

‘Because many universities see their reputation, their standing in prestigious international league tables and their marginal funding as being principally determined by scholarly output, teaching has regrettably been allowed to become something of a poor cousin to research in parts of our system. … This patchiness in the student experience within and between institutions cannot continue. There is extraordinary teaching that deserves greater recognition. And there is lamentable teaching that must be driven out of our system. It damages the reputation of UK higher education and I am determined to address it.’

Some of the most egregious and well-documented examples of lamentable teaching have actually been among some of the ‘alternative providers’ encouraged by government policy, but obviously it is not their fault, over-constrained as they are by the status quo:

‘I know some validation relationships work well, but the requirement for new providers to seek out a suitable validating body from amongst the pool of incumbents is quite frankly anti-competitive. It’s akin to Byron Burger having to ask permission of McDonald’s to open up a new restaurant. It stifles competition, innovation and student choice, which is why we will consult on alternative options for new providers if they do not want to go down the current validation route.’

So the Minister repeats his predecessor’s blind faith in market forces:

‘It is not at all clear to some students what their tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year actually pay for, and this has led to calls, which I support, for greater transparency from providers about what they spend fee income on. This will mean providers becoming much clearer with students about what they can expect during their time at university. The new framework will aim to give students more information about the actual teaching they will receive, drive up student engagement with the learning process and reward universities that do most to stretch young – and also not so young – minds.’

There are several heroic assumptions buried here, but even these pale besides the signoff:

‘It will help, I hope, create a culture where teaching has equal status with research, with our great teachers enjoying the same professional recognition and opportunities for career and pay progression as our great researchers.’

First, teaching and research are not watertight and mutually exclusive categories. Second, the asymmetry between teaching and research is well-recognised, with teaching tending to provide local intrinsic rewards and research much more likely to provide extrinsic and cosmopolitan rewards. In many ways research outputs are also more measurable, whereas Steven Jones (Manchester) has pointed out that ‘Finding TEF metrics that actually work has proved trickier than anticipated. Learning gain might (and probably should) be measurable at local levels for individual cohorts of students, but it doesn’t allow the kind of cross-institution and cross-discipline comparisons that the TEF craves. Employability and salary data tell you lots about students’ background characteristics but, as Graham Gibbs notes, they remain hopelessly distant proxies for the quality of teaching they received at university.’

The US government has recently had to admit partial defeat (as reported in this issue of SRHE News) in looking for a single measure of college quality, but did so by listening to critiques from inside the HE sector and developing a more realistic alternative. In the UK, the HE Academy and HEFCE have gone out of their way with new initiatives to search for teaching metrics, (also reported below). This might be a reasonable response to a government pledged to produce a TEF, but ultimately HE is, as Browne said, too complex for metrics to be more than part of the solution. Let us hope that the Minister, like his US counterpart, is also willing to listen and to be creative in interpreting that manifesto commitment, if and when his Green/White Paper finally appears.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England, Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics,  and Chair, Improving Dispute Resolution Advisory Service


Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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